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my year of rest and relaxation [a&c]

unlikeable women in the 21st century

It’s early November, and I’m bored. I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. A sigh escapes from me, unintentional. I reach for my phone and mindlessly open TikTok, my short attention span appreciating the immediate satisfaction each video gives me. I pause on a video of someone recommending My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, and a sort of excitement fills my stomach. In the past four years of my life, I’ve only had time to read during the slower months of summer, and even then, I’ve read one or two books at most. As a double concentrator in History and Education Studies, I’m constantly tasked with reading academic papers, so I suffer from reading fatigue and find it difficult to read for fun. But on this November day, I’m bored. Incredibly bored. I’m only taking three classes, and just one of them makes me read academic papers. I want to read fiction, and I can’t fight back this urge. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the one. I slide off my bed and slink over to my desk, opening my laptop and typing Z-Library into my browser. I search for the title and find an available link. I download the book and shrug away guilty thoughts about piracy (I need to know if a book is good before I buy it). With the book now on my laptop, I begin reading, curled in my gray saucer chair, the autumn air floating in through the open window.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation follows the life of an unnamed narrator living in New York City in 2000 and 2001. The narrator, a recent graduate of Columbia, chooses not to pursue a full-time career after receiving an inheritance from her parents who both died while she was still in school. She has one obvious goal in mind: to sleep for an entire year. Enlisting the help of a shady and unquestioning psychiatrist, the narrator obtains prescription after prescription intended to lull her to sleep. When she runs out of prescription meds, she makes sure to take a shot or two of vodka on her walk to the pharmacy so that she can minimize her awareness of the world around her. If not at the pharmacy or in her Upper East Side apartment, she’s buying cheap coffee and other goods from the nearby bodega before she takes drugs to fall back asleep again. 

The plot of the book might seem uneventful to many readers—who cares about some random rich, white woman attempting to sleep as much as possible? Yet, the narrator’s interactions with those “close” to her—her only friend Reva who she doesn’t like very much, her ex-boyfriend Trevor who wants nothing to do with her, and her aforementioned psychiatrist—illuminate a question that I readily identified with: What does it mean to wrestle with feelings of incredible loneliness that you have both unintentionally and intentionally manifested? And furthermore, what does it mean to knowingly embrace the identity of an unhinged and unlikeable woman? My Year of Rest and Relaxation is not for everyone, but it is for those of us who are constantly attempting to understand what it means to be alive in a world where you really only ever understand yourself (and even that just barely), and where your unconventional way of being seems unsettling to others.

In November, I was dealing with incredible pain. Having recently left a deeply co-dependent relationship, I didn’t exactly know who I was. I wasn’t too sure what I liked to do for fun. I didn’t know what I should eat. I wasn’t really sure of my favorite color, either. The worst part was my sleep, or lack thereof. When you spend so long sharing a bed with someone every night, the absence of a warm body next to yours makes a huge difference. Gummy melatonin hardly helped, neither did my recently prescribed medication. Meds might send me into a lull for a few hours, but I would wake up at three a.m. and start to think too much. 

I wanted to distract myself from the emptiness and boredom I felt, and the solution to that was sleeping. I needed to recalibrate my life, but I couldn’t do that while awake…again, I think too much. I needed to take refuge in the undisturbed territory of my dream world to better understand myself. 

So, when I read about the unnamed narrator’s quest for endless sleep, I saw myself in her. And it wasn’t just in her sleep that I saw myself. I also saw myself in her selfishness and tendency to shut people out. While I didn't identify with her fully (I don't consider myself cruel and self-centered), I wondered if we shared a number of traits that made us unlikable.

I think that selfishness isn’t discussed enough as a normal and natural human inclination. This is especially true for women. The common societal narrative is that women should be selfless, kind, loving, and warm. In the 21st century, they also should strive to be their best selves and achieve great success and independence. Unnamed narrator is the opposite. She is selfish and cold; She holds no clear goals and depends upon her parents’ inheritance. This isn’t who I want to be or be seen as, but in my time of hopelessness, the narrator’s qualities comforted me. I used to be scared of displaying any of those “negative” qualities out of fear that it would make people reject me and see me as below them (“How can you be a powerful and strong woman if you don’t treat everyone with kindness and always strive for greater success and independence?”). However, women can’t always be perfect, and neither can I, so seeing such an artistic portrayal of an unlikeable and unhinged woman gave me permission to be imperfect.

Moshfegh doesn’t endorse the narrator’s actions. In fact, she makes it clear through the narrator’s irrational annoyance toward her one and only friend, Reva, that the narrator is not a good person. Yet the poetic language Moshfegh uses to describe the narrator’s sleeping patterns reached me as I struggled to sleep and helped me romanticize my own dysfunction. Not only that, but the narrator’s extreme laziness made my own womanly laziness seem like less of a problem. This can be true for other women who also love to sleep and laze around in bed.

Today, feminism appears in many forms, but one of the more notable forms of relatively new feminism is the urge to be pretty, eat, and sleep. There is no dream job, only the rejection of capitalism. Through this lens, Moshfegh’s narrator helps push forward the message that women don’t have to be independent girlbosses or devoted housewives: we can be selfish and indulgent.

I’m no longer who I was in November. I’m aware of who I am and what I like to do to keep myself busy. But during that muggy fall, My Year of Rest and Relaxation helped me be okay with a version of myself who wasn’t myself. It gave me hope. At the end of the novel, the narrator finds herself. She no longer longs for sleep or solitude. She longs to be awake. There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is awake. And I was finally awake, too.



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